Truth be told, after my first week in Cusco and a week and a half in Peru, the cons of solo-travel was starting to hit home. I had briefly (and oddly) ran into an old friend from college on my first night, but otherwise I only had the children at Picaflor to interact with during the day. Seeing as they didn’t speak English and my Spanish went as far as telling them how old I was, I started to feel pretty darn lonely.
The hostel the volunteers stayed at with Picaflor was more of a budget hotel, and although it was a perfectly safe area during the day, as soon as night fell (at 6pm!) I was strongly recommended not to walk into the centre alone and urged to book a taxi every single time. The taxis themselves were a pretty terrifying experience, so I resolved to spend my evenings watching channel E! on TV and reading Poor Economics. As I was the only volunteer I was very much alone, and as it was not a hostel there was no opportunity to hang out with other guests either. My day times were great, but my evenings were mind numbing.
Luckily after a week I was joined by a 60-odd year old woman. She was a lovely person, but I couldn’t help but think her mind was elsewhere… She worked as a teacher in Ireland and had volunteered in places across the globe her whole life, and I admired her determination to keep going at her age. Coincidentally, she too was a vegetarian so I had a buddy to explore the local vegetarian cuisine in the evenings with, and no longer had to sit in my hostel alone eating crackers and cereal bars for dinner. Cusco had a surprisingly lively vegetarian scene; as it is capital of the Incas, lots of spiritual earth-loving types flock there to take ayahuasca and become at one with the Andes, avoiding mat as they went. I wasn’t complaining – the queso y avacado savoury pancakes in el ecuentro were delicious, and I would have been happy to demolish a Jack’s Cafe vegetarian burger every evening if it wasn’t so packed. There was definitely more to cusconian cuisine than cuy (guinea pig) and alapaca steaks! The only issue I ran into was that the water was not safe for consumption, and so even a washed salad would send you running for the toilet. I spent a fair amount of money buying bottled water, and could barely manage brushing my teeth without feeling a bit worse for ware. Some hippies on a bus back from Tipon had a moan about how they wanted to drink real Peruvian water and insisted that they could handle it, but even their shaman leader argued it was a bad idea. You only had to take one look out of the window and check out the volume of rubbish in the rivers to concur with him. I spent the rest of the week hanging out with a girl I originally met in Lima and a few guys from her hostel, and swiftly felt a million times better as a result. Had I had known I would be the only English speaking guest in my hotel I would have without a doubt booked myself into a more central hostel, and that is my only regret about my experience.
My trip was brightened up by the arrival of volunteer number 3, a delightful man from Manchester who had an epiphany working a soul-draining job in New York to travel the world and volunteer. A few hours after he landed we dragged him out with us to Inti Raymi, the annual festival worshipping the Incan sun god. The festival attracts thousands of tourists and locals to sacsyhuaman (sexywoman tehehe) every year to watch the finale of a week long parade that dominates the city centre. The costumes and floats were unbelievable; people of every age and every municipality joined in to put on a performance and it was absolutely stunning. We decided against paying $100 for a seat at the main event, and instead opted to perch on the hill with the locals. In front of us were the most infuriating hipsters standing in the way trying to get good shots with their SLRs, and behind us were local families having cuy for lunch. The locals did not like these hipsters standing in the way, and shortly pieces of bread were being chucked at them to sit down…. then bits of rubbish… then guinea pig bones… then plastic bottles… followed finally by entire bags of junk. At first the spectacle was quite
satisfying entertaining, but as it started to get out of hand we decided to scarper before we got hurt ourselves. It was a long but beautiful walk back down to the city centre.
Although the sun was shining it didn’t feel very hot, but little did I know how much damage I had done to my skin. At that altitude the sun is fierce, and I left Sacsyhuaman with a lobster red face stuck on a porcelain neck and chest. I swear I could write a travel book based purely on where I’ve endured the worst sunburn….